[Correction at end] Alan Shatter is concerned that RTÉ is not giving sufficient coverage to the upcoming referendum on the establishment of a civil court of appeal.
“I find it extraordinary that RTÉ on their six o’clock TV bulletin failed to make any mention whatsoever of the referendum being held to establish a court of appeal,” the Minister said.
He may be right, but it is not a constitutional amendment that was ever likely to generate much interest. If the Government genuinely wanted to ensure a high profile debate on the proposal it should not have scheduled the vote to take place on the same date as the referendum to abolish the Seanad . That proposal concerns politicians and inevitably most air time is consumed by them.
What is far more extraordinary is that the Government has tucked away in the court of appeal referendum an entirely separate amendment to the Constitution. This separate amendment would remove one of the “one judgment” rules from the Constitution (see section 5 of the Thirty-third Amendment of the Constitution (Court of Appeal) Bill 2013). It has nothing to do with the court of appeal, but we will vote on both amendments together.
The first I heard of the proposal was in Michael Williams’ article in the Irish Independent on 4 September 2013:
On October 4 next, as well as voting on abolishing the Seanad, we will consider a composite proposal, first to approve the establishment of a new Court of Appeal and, second, to remove a rule that when the Supreme Court makes a decision on a constitutional issue, only one judgment appears.
But, amazingly, the Government has limited our choice. We must vote for or against the package. We may not approve one part but not the other.
The one judgment rule (article 34.4.5°) arises when someone challenges the constitutionality of a law before the Supreme Court. Usually, the Supreme Court issues a majority judgment and other judges who sit on the particular case can supplement that judgment with comments of their own or, if they disagreed, can issue a dissenting judgment outlining why they took a different position. This is not the case with a constitutional challenge, when only one judgment may be issued and no others can be published which indicates the majority view.
It is of historical and political interest that the one judgment rule was not in the original 1937 Constitution but was introduced in 1941 during the transitional period when the Oireachtas could amend it without holding a referendum. The history of the 1941 amendment is set out in the report of the Constitutional Review Group (1996):
[The provision] seems to have been inserted as a direct result of the decision of the Supreme Court in In re Article 26 and the Offences Against the State (Amendment) Bill 1940  IR 470. In this very sensitive case, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Offences Against the State (Amendment) Act 1940 (which provided for internment) a few months after the High Court had pronounced that similar legislation was unconstitutional. Chief Justice Sullivan commenced the judgment of the court by announcing that it was the ‘decision of the majority of the judges’ and as Chief Justice Finlay was later to state in Attorney General v Hamilton (No 1)  2 IR 250:
This was apparently seen to indicate a dissenting opinion which, it was felt, could greatly reduce the authority of the decision of the court and, we are informed, and it is commonly believed, led directly to the additional clauses by the Act of 1941 in both Article 26 and Article 34.
This is borne out by Mr de Valera’s comments in the Dáil during the debate on the Second Amendment of the Constitution Bill (82 Dáil Debates 1857-9):
From an educational point of view, the proposal [for separate judgments] would, no doubt, be valuable, but, after all, what do we want? We want to get a decision … The more definite the position is the better, and, from the point of view of definitiveness, it is desirable that only one judgment be pronounced … [and] that it should not be bandied about from mouth to mouth that, in fact, the decision was only come to by a majority of the Supreme Court. Then you have added on, perhaps, the number of judges who dealt with the matter in the High Court before it came to the Supreme Court, as might happen in some cases. You would then have an adding up of judges, and people saying: ‘They were five on this side and three on the other, and therefore the law is the other way.’
What is important is legal certainty as to the judgment, which may affect fundamental issues. It was also suggested that the one-judgment rule allows the Supreme Court to provide the legislature with certainty without any of its members becoming the subject of political criticism and, possibly, pressure. Moreover, certainty would not be provided by a three-to-two judgment where at any time in the future a judge might change his mind on a fundamental issue.
It can be seen that there is a debate to be had about the one judgement rule. The 1996 Review Group considered it and their report outlines four pages of argument either way. Most arguments were in support of abolishing the rule and the argument for keeping the one judgment rule was as follows:
1 it is the decision of the majority of the Supreme Court which really counts and only uncertainty is created by allowing the publication of dissenting opinions
2 the publication of dissenting opinions serves only to weaken the authority of the court’s pronouncement and impair its persuasiveness.
Ultimately, the Review Group was in favour of what the Government now proposes: to remove the one judgment rule in constitutional challenges before the Supreme Court. (The referendum will not remove the one judgment rule in the case of article 26 references by the President, and indeed the 1996 Review Group failed to reach consensus on that point.)
There are clearly reasonable arguments in favour of removing the one judgment rule as is now proposed and the Government could credibly argue that this is a “tidying up” referendum which is merely implementing a recommendation made in 1996 (by a Review Group, it could be noted, established by Fine Gael and Labour when they were last in office).
But the one judgment rule can hardly be thought of as a pressing issue. Why has the Government not taken the opportunity to consider the operation of the article 26 reference power of the President, to which the one judgment also applies, and consider wider reform of the law on constitutional challenges? After all, one of the reasons for establishing a civil court of appeal is to free up the Supreme Court so that it can devote its time to constitutional issues.
Paul McMahon says that while there are positive aspects to the one judgment rule it appears to be a “disproportionate restriction on judicial free speech”. But Michael Gallagher makes the point I alluded to already:
There is certainly a good case for deleting 26.2.2 and 34.4.5, but this is pretty arcane stuff to be putting to the people in a referendum. Any such proposal would surely have to be part of a reform package if it was to generate much interest from the electorate, especially given the ‘referendum fatigue’ noted by Theresa Reidy in her post here on 2 July.
Furthermore, there are existing forums to consider such wider reform. The 1996 Review Group considered almost all aspects of the Constitution, including constitutional challenges in the Supreme Court, and made recommendations for reform. The current Government established a Constitutional Convention albeit one which, despite the grand title, has a limited remit and is ordered to consider a specific list of limited issues, few of which are particularly pressing.
It is peculiar that the current Government has embarked on a series of referendums on constitutional reform which are separate from the Convention. Why are some issues to be considered by the Convention and others not? Why are some amendments proposed, presumably on the basis of recommendations almost 20 years ago, whereas others are put through a fresh round of consideration?
The most important current question is, however: why is the abolition of the one judgment rule not proposed in a separate bill and subject to a separate vote?
One might reasonably be in favour of abolishing the one judgment rule, but the manner in which the amendment is being proposed raise is significant and worrying:
- it is included in legislation to establish a court of appeal and although the issues are entirely separate and unconnected they will be voted on as a package;
- the government parties do not appear to be making any reference to the proposal in their referendum campaign;
- there is little or no debate on the issue.
One might wonder if this is the future of constitutional amendments in Ireland: small “tidying up” measures being tucked into larger reforms, with no government or political attention being drawn to them, no real debate and no option to vote separately on each issue.
PS: Given that polling day on 4 October 2013 includes a referendum on Seanad abolition it is ironic that the only Oireachtas debate on the abolition of the one judgment rule that I could find was in the Seanad (Senator Ivana Bacik; Senator Averil Power).
[Correction] The speech of the Minister for Justice, Alan Shatter, when introducing the Bill did of course note the proposal in the following terms, but did not address why it is included in the court of appeal Bill rather than in stand-alone legislation:
It is my strong view that justice is best served by giving the Judiciary the freedom, where they so desire, to give judgments, including minority judgments, on important matters concerning the constitutionality of our laws. For the time being, this reform, in line with the review group’s recommendation, is limited to the Article 34. Therefore, if the referendum is carried, both the court of appeal and the Supreme Court will be able to issue multiple judgments in cases involving challenges to the constitutionality of laws, in the same way as in all other cases that come before them.